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This minor detective classic from the early 70s is blessed with major graces that make it a first rank neo-noir. Fans of Bill Cosby and Robert Culp may have difficulty with the film's unrelieved pessimism, but they should also note Robert Culp's excellent work as a director. Although Sam Peckinpah was Culp's mentor, this picture beats most of Peckinpah's later movies, hands down.
The setting is Los Angeles, the seedy side. Al Hickey and Frank Boggs (Bill Cosby and Robert Culp) are in a sorry state as private detectives. Both are separated from hostile wives; their shabby detective agency is so hard-pressed for cash that they can receive phone calls but not make them. A job to locate a missing girl named Mary Ann lands them in the middle of a drug deal involving loan sharks, mob operatives, professional hit men and radical revolutionaries. The cops are also on their case, but their partnership perseveres to the bitter and violent end.
Hickey & Boggs received lots of praise in print reviews but was a complete bust in the theaters. Sadly, the Cosby-Culp teaming from television's I Spy didn't bring in the fans; audiences primed for something witty and light were likely turned off by the grim adventures of the most dour private detectives ever put on screen. Cosby broods about his estranged family and his wife (Rosalind Cash) sees no reconciliation in the cards. Culp veers toward alcoholism, staring in a drunken stupor as his ex-wife, a stripper, taunts him from the runway: "Eat your heart out." The partners meet in bars to discuss the miserable condition of their business. I doubt that they smile once during the entire show.
Walter Hill's screenplay is a critique of the detective genre. Like Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, it works best for refined genre fans that know their Raymond Chandlers from his Burke's Laws and can appreciate Hickey & Boggs' fall from grace. These boys want to be Chandler's white knight of good, but luck is not on their side. The very landscape seems against them, when old apartment buildings become traps and even the wide-open spaces of the Coliseum are an arena for a machine gun battle. The bland-but-deadly California sunshine analogy goes further in a scene that takes place on a fancy property literally left hanging out over an ocean-side cliff. Nothing in Hickey & Boggs is particularly stable.
The partners soon realize that they are being used by their criminal clients. The man who hires them to track down Mary Ann (who turns out to be not a lost girl but a ruthless drug runner) is introduced as a child molester. Al Hickey barely registers the gravity of that revelation. As they get sucked into the workings of a major crime ring, no code of honor or oath to a suffering widow keeps them on the case. They repeatedly complain that "this job doesn't mean anything anymore," yet persist out of simple bull-headedness and a need to assert their self identity. If they wouldn't change professions to save their marriages, they'll be damned if a bunch of criminal scum can make them quit sleuthing.
The casting is excellent, with director Robert Culp effortlessly guiding his characters through good genre situations. Hickey & Boggs reminds us a bit of the revisionist malaise in Peckinpah's TV show The Westerner: all the characters seem sick of lifestyles limited by genre conventions. Michael Moriarity, Vincent Gardenia, Ed Lauter and James Woods have impressive early career bit parts as various cops and hit-men. Convincing Latins Mary Ann (Carmen) and her revolutionary lover Quemando (Louis Moreno) become sympathetic as they struggle to elude an onslaught of avaricious mobsters.
The stakes get higher and the violence escalates as all four sides of the intrigue -- crooks, revolutionaries, cops and detectives -- underestimate each other. Excellent Los Angeles location filming concentrates on few recognizable locales but carries the burnt-out flavor of the L.A. streets: everyone is out for himself. 1 The old rules have seemingly been suspended: killings aren't restricted to dark alleys. The shoot-outs happen in broad daylight, in public places.
Despite a dandy concluding battle on a beach, Hickey & Boggs was probably just too much of a downer to appeal to wide audiences. 2 Even 'realistic' action pictures of the time had a humorous side; heavy-duty downer cop shows like Badge 373 and The Friends of Eddie Coyle passed quietly. One scene in the picture shows Hickey suffering a blow to his family that makes his whole life go sour. From that point forward he seems to be operating on automatic pilot. In the final showdown our heroes go through the motions propelled only by existential inertia.
It's possible that movie directing was Culp's real calling. His direction can stand alongside any genre filmmaker's and dwarfs the later work of his screenwriter Walter Hill. It's a shame that this joyless but superior effort didn't lead him to a wider career.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection's DVD of Hickey & Boggs is a fine rendering of this handsomely shot detective show. The enhanced widescreen transfer appears to be a down-conversion from the beautiful 1080i HD encoding that now screens frequently on the MGM HD cable channel, because it looks almost as sharp and bright. Hickey & Boggs has been so hard to see that about ten years ago some gray-market sellers distributed awful DVD versions, as if the show were in the Public Domain; MGM's authorized version is the way to go.
Robert Culp passed away a few seasons back but was able to attend an American Cinematheque screening of Hickey and Boggs and see it applauded by a new audience. Made too soon to capitalize on the neo-noir craze, his show is one of the few that communicates the darkest depths of hardboiled detective fiction.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hickey & Boggs rates:
1. Location truck and camera system magnate Faoud Said produced the picture, so the fluidity of filming in all those locations makes sense.
2. It's also possible that UA lacked confidence in the movie and distributed it weakly. One would think that in 1972 a movie with known stars Bill Cosby and Robert Culp would at least open.
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T'was Ever Thus.